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ATONEMENT IN MORMON THOUGHT

Blake Ostler
The Christian doctrine of atonement teaches that it is because of Christs life, suffering , death and
resurrection that forgiveness of sins is possible. Sin consists in injury to human relationships and resulting
alienation. Atonement consists in eradicating from our lives whatever gets in the way of loving relationships
with God and each other. Atonement thus heals our alienation. Why is it that healing, reconciliation and unity
are not possible without Christ? The traditional answers have focused on various metaphors and images that
dont seem to answer this question. They seem to entail that Christ must overcome the anger of an unjust and
unloving father, deal with the devil or appease some realm of cosmic absolutes. Further, they dont really
explain why simply forgiving and being forgiven are impossible without these punishments, dealings and
cosmic contraptions.
The Mormon scriptures suggest a departure from the traditional explanations signaled by focusing on
Christs experience in Gethsemane. In preparation for the experiences to follow, Christ prays to be one in unity
with the disciples just as He is one with the Father. He also prays for return of His pre-mortal glory that He
enjoyed with the Father, as the second divine person of the Godhead, before the world. Further, Christ
experiences surpassing spiritual anguish in Gethsemane for humans sin as a prelude to the path to death on a
Roman cross. It is in Gethsemane that the purpose of atonement is realized: achieving a relationship of loving
and interpenetrating unity of the type enjoyed by the divine persons in the Godhead. The focus on Gethsemane
in Mormon scriptures is the story of how the alienation inherent in mortal life is overcome and healed by the
compassion that God learns by suffering as a mortal. Atonement is the story of Gods gracious offer of love
to accept us as worthy of covenant relationship just as we are and to enter into a relationship in which the
energies of our lives are literally mingled as one so that we can grow and be made over in the divine image.

A. Desiderata for a Theory of Atonement. The doctrine of atonement is the claim that through
Jesuss incarnation as God into mortal life, death and resurrection we are saved from sin and reconciled to God.
It is the core of the Christian gospel. The notion that Christ suffered excruciating pain in Gethsemane and took
the pain of our sins upon him is central to Mormon claims about atonement. However, it is important to
distinguish between the doctrine of atonement which is a claim of faith, from a symbolic or metaphorical
expression of atonement and both from a theory of atonement. One can believe something without
understanding it. I believe that quantum physics is more or less accurate, but I dont fully understand quantum
theory well . Nevertheless, one must have some grasp of what is asserted to have faith that it is true. If the
center of ones faith happened to be that bliks can jump over the moon, such a claim literally cannot be
believed because we have no idea what is being asserted. Is the atonement like that? We believe it but have no
idea what is being asserted when we say that Christ atoned for our sins?
A symbolic or metaphorical expression of atonement tells us something about what atonement is like.
There are at least five dominant metaphors for atonement in the earliest Christian scripture: (1) atonement is
like being acquitted in a court of law and therefore accepted as in right covenant relationship with God (the
doctrine of justification by faith Rom. 3:21-4:25; 1 Cor. 1:30); (2) atonement is like having the price of ones
release from slavery paid by a charitable benefactor (the doctrine of redemption Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14); (3)
atonement is like being reconciled from alienation and healing a breach of relationship between friends (2 Cor.
5:18-19; Col. 1:20-21); (4) atonement is like a sacrificial offering of a paschal lamb or other offering that

expiates or eradicates sin (Heb. 10:12; 1 Cor. 5:7); (5) atonement is like a military victory over forces of evil
(Gal. 1:4; Col. 2:15) However, such word-pictures give rise to numerous notions that often dont work well
together. They give rise to numerous questions that arent answered by such metaphors.
The notion that the suffering of a man who lived more than 2,000 years ago is somehow operative in
enabling us to be forgiven of our sins here and now or more technically to have our sins eradicated through
expiation is puzzling to the say the least. How could the fact that a man suffered and died 2,000 years ago
still have some relation to my repentance here and now? How is it possible that the sins I commit now could
cause him pain 2,000 years ago? Yet it is as clear as anything can be that the scriptures assert in many varied
ways that Christ suffers pain because he takes our sins and infirmities upon him. Such statements are
ubiquitous in both Old and New Testaments and the Mormon scriptures.
A theory of atonement, in contrast, is an explanation of how Christs life, death and resurrection save
us from sin and reconcile us to God and why Christs life, death and resurrection make a difference for us here
and now. Such theories attempt to make sense of the various scriptural metaphors and symbols and to defend
the basic faith claims against arguments that atonement is unintelligible, immoral or just plain unnecessary to
explain being forgiven. Atonement is often called a solution to a problem where there is no problem. Indeed,
it looks like Christianity erroneously asserts that we need a Savior that can be appropriated for salvation only
within the confines of the Christians faith tradition. Do we even need an atonement to be forgiven or to forgive?

It seems to me that a theory of atonement ought to answer or at least cast some light upon at least
the following questions:
1. How is Christs life, death and resurrection either necessary or uniquely beneficial to expiate or
eradicate the effects of sin in our lives so that we are reconciled to God here and now?
2. Why cant we just be forgiven without someone suffering?
3. Why does Christs suffering and experience atone for our sins in a way that the Father and the Holy
Ghost do not?
4. How could Christ bear our sins or take our sins upon him that we commit in the here and now
in a way that caused him to suffer?.
5. How do the ordinances of sacrament and baptism (among others) signify what occurs in atonement?
In addition, a theory of atonement ought to meet Abelards Constraint to develop a model of atonement
that is neither unintelligible, arbitrary, illogical, nor immoral. Afer all, who wouldnt prefer a theory which
is intelligible, non-arbitrary, logically coherent and morally acceptable?
Why should a theory of atonement be required to answer just these questions? A theory is judged by
its ability to best explain the relevant data: Our own experiences of salvation through Christ, release from sin,
reconciliation to God and forgiving and being forgiven. However, the primary data for any theory of atonement
are the scriptural claims about the atonement and experiences of atonement expressed in scripture. It seems
to me that few claims are better attested in the Mormon canon of scripture than these:

(A) Christ takes upon him and into his being the effects of our sins.
(E.g., because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his
steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did
not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who
judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live
to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed, 1 Pet. 2:21-24; For Christ also suffered once
for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh
but made alive in the spirit, 1 Pet. 3:18).
(B) As a result of bearing our sins, Christ suffers physically and spiritually.
(E.g, And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than
man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be
his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people, Mosiah 3:7. he has borne our
griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted . . . But
he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our
peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. . . The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of
us all, Mosiah 14/Isaiah 53 He took upon himself our infirmities and bare our sickness, Matt.
20:28; his sweat was as it were great drops of blood, Luke 22:44; Christ was once suffered to bear
the sins of many, Heb. 9:28; 11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and
temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him
the pains and the sicknesses of his people; 12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the
bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may
be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his
people according to their infirmities. Alma 7:11-12).
(C) Because Christ bears our sins, we are released from the effects of our sins and our alienation
and we are therefore reconciled to God and found in Christ.
(E.g., my blood was shed for many for the remission of sins, Matt. 26:28; justified by his blood,
we shall be saved, Rom. 5:9; Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are
passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us
to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was
in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath
committed unto us the word of reconciliation, 2 Cor. 5:17-19; But now in Christ Jesus you who once
were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ, Eph.2:13; For behold, I, God, have
suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent, D&C 19:16; For,
behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men,
that all men might repent and come unto him, D&C 18:11; That he came into the world, even Jesus,
to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse
it from all unrighteousness. D&C 76:41).
(D) Christs mercy shown in taking upon himself our iniquities satisfies the demands of justice
for those that repent.
(E.g., For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law
given to them, 2 Ne. 9:26; Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy
to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt,
Mosiah 2:38; And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of
safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of

justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal
plan of redemption, Mosiah 15:9; Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being
filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken
the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them,
and satisfied the demands of justice. (Alma 34:16); And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought
about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world,
to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just
God, and a merciful God also . . . For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy
claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. Alma 42:15, 24)
I suggest that no theory in the history of Christianity to date has actually met the burden of explaining
how Christs suffering somehow eradicates our sin in the here and now. I submit that no theory to date has
adequately answered the questions raised by the claim that because of Christ our sins are forgiven. None has
adequately explained how Christ could possibly bear the pain of sins that havent even occurred yet and might
not occur because sin is necessarily the result of free choices that could be otherwise. Finally, no theory that
I am aware of meets Abelards Constraint of providing a non-arbitrary explanation for Christs atonement that
is both coherent and morally acceptable.

******
C. Mormon Theories of Atonement. There have been several theories of atonement that are both
historically unique and inherently interesting. I think that it is safe to say that most Mormons accept a form of
penal substitution theory of atonement.1 The new theories have been suggested largely out of dissatisfaction
with substitutionary theories and the unique beliefs and resources of the revelations and teachings of Joseph
Smith.
1. The Demand of Eternal Intelligences for Justice. A novel and interesting theory was introduced
by Cleon Skousen. As Skousen expresses it, all material reality consists of intelligences that act as they do
because of their trust in God. Gods power and glory depend upon the faith and trust that the intelligences place
in God. If they did not honor and trust God, then God would cease to be God. (See Alma 42: 13, 22; Mormon
9:19) The fact that we have sinned and not been punished for it calls into question Gods governance and
justice. The intelligences demand justice. If the intelligences are not satisfied, then they will rebel against Gods
governance and God will cease to be God. The intelligences demand that someone must suffer for the wrongs
that have been committed. To satisfy the demand for justice, God sends his own Son because the intelligences
respect and trust the Son as much as they do God. However, when they see the suffering of a person who is
entirely innocent and without sin whom they love, they are revolted by their own demand for justice. They see,
in effect, that their demand for justice is itself a form of injustice and refusal to forgive. Their demand for
justice is thus appeased and replaced with a change of heart that leads the intelligences to be merciful2 .
There is a lot to like in this theory. It goes a ways toward answering some of the questions that form
1

See for example, Hyrum L Andrus, God, Man and the Universe (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
1968), chs. 15 and 16; Boyd K. Packer, The Mediator, Ensign (May 1977); "The Necessity of a Sinless
Messiah," by Ronald A. Heiner, BYU Studies, Volume 22, no. 1 (1982), 5-30.
2

From a typescript of a talk given18 December 1980 in Dallas, Texas by Cleon Skousen. See also,
The First 2000 Years (SLC: Bookcraft, 1953), appendix.

the basis of a theory of atonement. There is no eternal law that prevents God from forgiving us from sin. He
could just forgive us. However, there is an unjust demand from subjects of the kingdom that requires that
someone must pay the price for sin by suffering. There is a reason why the suffering must be done by Christ
or at least someone like him: the intelligences must respect and love the victim of the unjust crucifixion.
Further, the extent of the suffering must be so excessive and unjust that it shocks the conscious and awakens
feelings of outrage and reconsideration of ones own unjust demands and refusal to forgive without someone
giving a pound of flesh. The suffering is related to forgiveness because it occasions a decision to let go of unjust
demands for retribution and thus leads to forgiveness and repentance. This theory exposes our own unjust
demands for justice and refusal to forgive others. It exposes our own unjust refusal to let go of demands for
retribution. All of this is very enlightening.
However, the theory doesnt account for the scriptural data that must be explained by a theory of
atonement. It doesnt connect with the scriptural sense in which Christ actually bears our sins. According to
scripture, the pain that Christ suffers arises from taking our sins upon himself and indeed into his own person.
(See 1 Peter 2:21-24) My sins dont seem to be involved in anything that Christ does because the intelligences
were persuaded to give up their unjust demands 2,000 years ago. What I do in the here and now seems totally
disconnected from this explanation for atonement. Perhaps it could be said that Christ bears the brunt of an
unjust demand for retribution and in this sense bears the sins of the intelligences. However, our sins are not
limited to just making unjust demands for retribution. Moreover, the atonement functions by God giving in to
unjust demands and thus entails that God in fact is complicit in unjustly requiring his son to suffer to appease
these unjust demands. Moreover, the biggest question it raises for me is: why doesnt the Father himself
undergo the punishment to assuage the unjust demands? This view seems to entail that the Father is both unjust
and a coward. Wouldnt the intelligences lose faith and trust in the Father for failing to take accountability for
the solution? Perhaps it could be argued that it was tougher for the Father to stand on the sidelines and watch
his son suffer. But that merely underscores that the Father had every reason to undergo the unjust suffering
himself.
Moreover, is Gods status as God really that precarious? If the intelligences simply fail to honor him,
God ceases to be God. If that is so, why would such a god inspire us at all let alone be in a position to
command our total allegiance as he is wont to do throughout all scriptural texts? Moreover, the scriptural
warrant for this view is obviously questionable. Almas discussion of the demands of justice in Alma 34 and
42 rather clearly has nothing to do with the demands of intelligences for someone to pay the price of violation
of the law.
2. The Self-Rejection Moral Theory of Atonement. Eugene England gives an eloquent expression
to his view of atonement. What is unique is that England presents the demands of justice spoken of by Alma
(34 and 42) as our own demand for justice to meted out to ourselves for our own moral failures. We are
estranged from ourselves by our own sense of moral responsibility for what we have done that is beyond our
power to repair and thus we are thus unable to accept ourselves:
Paradoxically, our moral sense of justice both brings me to the awareness of sin that must
begin all repentance and yet interferes with my attempts to repent. I feel that every action must
bear its consequences and that I must justify my actions to myself; since there is a gap
between belief and action I am in a state which brings into my heart and mind a sense of guilt,
of unbearable division within myself. As Alma taught his sinful son Corianton, "There was
a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man"
(Alma 42:18). This same moral nature, this sense of justice that demands satisfaction, causes

me to want to improve my life but also to insist that I pay the penalty in some way for my sin.
But of course there is no way I can finally do this. . . . God pierces to the heart of this paradox
through the Atonement, and it becomes possible for us personally to experience both alienation
and reconciliation, which opens us to the full meaning of both evil and good, bringing us to
a condition of meekness and lowliness of heart where we can freely accept from God the
power to be a god. And Alma also taught his son this other essential role God plays in the
Atonement. Besides giving mortals "remorse of conscience" by giving the law and judging us,
"God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease
the demands of justice ..." (Alma 4 2:15).3
However, God intervenes through Jesus to assuage this sense of moral responsibility that leads to
estrangement from God and ourselves. He penetrates our refusal to accept ourselves by showing us that we are
worthy of our own self-acceptance because God accepts us unconditionally:
Christ is the unique manifestation in human experience of the fullness of that unconditional
love from God which Paul chose to represent with the Greek term agape. As Paul expressed
it, "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Christ's sacrificial love was
not conditional upon our qualities, our repentance, anything; he expressed his love to us while
we were yet in our sinsnot completing the process of forgiveness, which depends on our
response, but initiating it in a free act of mercy. This is a kind of love quite independent from
the notion of justice. There is no quid-pro-quo about it.. . . and that is precisely why it is
redemptive. It takes a risk, without calculation, on the possibility that we can realize our
infinite worth. It gets directly at that barrier in us, our sense of justice, which makes me
incapable of having unconditional love for myselfunable to respond positively to my own
potential, because I am unable to forgive myself, unable to be at peace with myself until I have
somehow "made up" in suffering for my sins, something I am utterly incapable of doing. The
demands of justice that Amulek and Alma are talking about, which must be overpowered, are
from our own sense of justice, not some abstract eternal principle but our own demands on
ourselves; those demands which bring us into estrangement with ourselves (as we gain new
knowledge of right but do not live up to it) and thus begin the process of growth through
repentance, but we cannot complete that process.4
Ultimately, Englands theory must be seen as a form of moral influence theory. The effect upon us is
a psychological realization that we are worth while. As England expressed it: That the Atonement is performed
by Christ, the son and revelation of God, is, of course, crucial. He represents to us the ultimate source of justice
and is the one whose teachings and example bring us directly to face our need for repentance; he awakens our
own sense of justice and stands as a judge over all our actions and thus only he can fully release us from what
becomes the immobilizing burden of that judgment, through the power of mercy extended unconditionally in
his Atonement.5 However, when pressing his own theory with the question as to why Christ must suffer and

Eugene England, That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement, Dialogue: A Journal of
Mormon Thought (Autumn 1967), 85-86.
4

Ibid., 86. (Emphasis in original)

Ibid., 86-87.

how this suffering is supposed to link-up with our sins here and now, he ultimately begs off giving an answer
because the New Testament is not a book of theology and we are best left with a kaleidoscope of various
metaphors: The question Why is man's salvation dependent on Christ and the events surrounding his death?
is the most central and the most difficult question in Christian theology. The answers (and there are many) are,
as I have said, the chief scandal of Christianity to the non-believer. Attempts to define logical theories of the
Atonement based on New Testament scriptures have been largely contradictory and ultimately futilemainly
because the New Testament is not a book of theology, a logical treatise, but rather gives us the reaction, the
varied emotional responses.6 However, England does claim that the atonement is necessary because only
Christ can motivate the kind of change to accept ourselves with our own self-love: The Atonement is a
necessary, but not sufficient, factor in salvation from sinnecessary because only Christ can fully motivate
the process in free agents, and insufficient because an agent must respond and complete the process. There is
no condition in which we can imagine God being unable to forgive. The question is what effect will the
forgiveness have; the forgiveness is meaningless unless it leads to repentance.7
However, it seems to me that England is mistaken in his assertion that only Christ can motivate the
process of self-love in agents much less the kind of repentance that can be accomplished even without any
atonement on Englands own view. There are numerous examples of persons who have suffered unjustly and
with forbearance and love. Why dont the sufferings of Peter who was supposedly crucified upside-down or
Mahatma Ghandi suffice without God himself undergoing the pain of a Roman crucifixion? According to
England only Christ will do because he is the ultimate source of justice. However, just what it could mean
for Christ to be the ultimate source of justice is vague indeed. Certainly such an extravagant metaphysical
and meta-ethical claim requires some support. I fail to see how Englands observations provide us with
anything more than an inspiring example of loving acceptance. But of course Christ was far from unique in
being an inspiring example of love. Further, one hardly has to look to Christ for an example of a human
suffering injustice at the hands of others or undeserved death.
Moreover, there doesnt seem to be any sense in which Christ bears our sins on this view. There is no
sense in which his suffering is related to our actual sins or to forgiveness of those sins. Indeed, what is
necessary isnt suffering but merely Gods loving acceptance without any prior conditions. Such loving
acceptance surely can be given and manifest without any suffering or Christ bearing our sins. Further, are there
really that many who are not morally blind to their own guilt? It seems that the much more common problem
is failure to take accountability for ones own evil rather than failure to accept ones self because of ones own
sins. It seems that I could have all of the benefits of atonement given Englands theory without anything done
by Christ at all. All I have to do is give up my own unjustified demand for self-rejection. He provides no reason
I cant just do that on my own. That of course is a general criticism that applies to all moral influence theories.
There is nothing immoral or illogical about such a view. It meets Abelards Constraint. It simply fails to
explain what a theory of atonement must explain. Perhaps England would suggest that he wasnt attempting
to give a theory at all (since he disclaims any such enterprise). Rather, he just wanted to illuminate some
aspects of our human experience of atonement and in that he undoubtedly succeeded.
3. The Empathy Theory of Atonement. Dennis Potter presented a novel theory of atonement that
focuses on qualifying Christ to be our judge. Potter argues that justice can be satisfied equally well by either

Ibid. 87.

Ibid., 89.

punishment or forgiveness. However, forgiveness instead of punishment is only appropriate in certain


circumstances. God should forgive us only when it is best to do so. The judgment as to when forgiveness is best
depends on considerations such what best serves the sinner, the remorse and repentance of the sinner and
whether the sinner has truly reformed. However, according to this theory, God does not have a sufficient basis
to judge us because he hasnt shared our mortal experiences of alienation and sin first hand. Potter asserts:
The suffering in Gethsemane is a miraculous event in which Jesus experiences exactly what
each of us experiences in our sinning. Only then can he fully understand why we do what we
do. Only then can he fully understand the circumstances of our crimes. Only then can he know
our remorse, and know whether our hearts have changed.... Being one of the judges himself,
this understanding of our hearts allows him to justly pardon us in the event that we feel
remorse for our sins.8
Christ can judge justly because he can empathize with us. The demands of justice which the Book
of Mormon says are satisfied by Christs sacrificial atonement are met because God will not forgive where
mercy is not warranted. (See 2 Ne. 2:26; Mosiah 2:38; 15:9; Alma 34:16; 42:15, 24 for reference to how the
mercy shown in atonement satisfies the demands of justice). Mercy is also granted when it is warranted by
the best judgment based upon considerations of the sinners contrition, reparations and reform. But this theory
goes far beyond that. The Empathy theory seems to adopt the Buddhist view that to understand all is to forgive
all. However, it seems to require that Christ actually knows exactly what we do and the reasons that we do it
before we do it. How does he know such things? Such claims seem odd since Potter accepts, as I do, that
foreknowledge is incompatible free will. Thus, God cannot know our free acts before we do them. Yet this
theory seems to require that Christ knows precisely what we do and why we do it not only for the past sins
that had occurred when he was in Gethsemane, but also for the sins that we do 2,000 years later. Indeed, he
knows our reasons for sinning as well. How could Christ know that about us in Gethsemane? Certainly God
knows what our reasons are for sinning at the time we do them in virtue of his omniscience but that means
that Christ doesnt need to have the miracle in Gethsemane at all.
Perhaps we should construe Potter to be asserting that Christ knows only what it is like to be subject
to temptation and the reasons that one could sin. He has empathy for us in Gethsemane, not actual
foreknowledge of what we will do. There is something that seems right about this assertion: Christ is better
qualified to judge us, it seems, if he has shared our same mortal condition and suffered with us. But how does
this account explain the extreme pain that he experienced as recounted in scripture? This theory fails to account
for the scriptural claims that Christ actually bears and suffers for our sins. It fails to account for the claim that
because of this suffering we are released from suffering and reconciled to God. While we might have more
confidence in God to be fair to us, does this account do anything to explain how we become sanctified through
the atonement as the scriptures claim? (2 Ne. 2:8; D&C 74:7)
Further, doesnt this theory imply that God doesnt forgive us until after we repent? It doesnt explain
how atonement enables us to repent as Mormon scriptures repeatedly claim. (See 2 Ne. 2, Alma 34 and 42)
Why do we need atonement at all if we can repent on our own and we are deserving of forgiveness because we
have repented? It seems that we have earned the right to be forgiven on such a view. This view might account
for why Christ is in a position to be our judge; but it doesnt begin to explain what must be explained by an

Dennis Potter, Did Christ Pay for Our Sins? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39, no.
1 (Spring 2006), 57-81, quote from p. 83.

adequate theory of atonement.


4. The Divine Infusion Theory. Jacob Morgan has presented what he terms the divine infusion theory.
According to Morgan, there are two kinds of laws of justice.9 The first is punitive justice which demands a
punishment if someone sins whether they later change or not. The second type is what he calls deserts
punishment which gives a person what s/he deserves. Deserts punishment is not as worried about what a person
did as what a person presently is. Its goal is reform and if a person repents there is no reason to punish the
sinner. According to Morgan, the demands of justice spoken of in the Book of Mormon are the demands for
punishment of punitive justice. However, there is another law which applies to those who repent, the Law of
Restoration that is a desert based sense of justice everyone gets what they deserve based on their works or
on the principle that everyone naturally reaps what they sew. There is a natural result for our actions that
dictates that we receive mercy for mercy, light for light and so forth (citing D&C 88:39-40)
The purpose of punitive justice is to motivate us to repent. If we dont repent, then we are punished.
However, mercy can overpower justice (Alma 34:15) when repentance based upon true reform has taken
place. As he states: there is no need for suffering (vicarious or otherwise) once we have reformed from our
sinful ways. To be saved in the celestial kingdom, we must learn to live the celestial law. God cannot decide
which kingdom of glory we will receive because that determination follows naturally from the kind of law we
live. Justice is ultimately concerned with what we are not merely that we obtain forgiveness from God, but
that we become like God if we want to live where he does.
Morgan contends that according to Mormon scripture we would be in a super-fallen state except for
the atonement. That is, we would not be able to repent. We would be unable to choose to repent because we
would lack a conscience that allows us to discern between right and wrong. However, as a result of the
atonement every person is enlightened with the light of Christ which provides to every person the ability to
discern between right and wrong. (Citing 2 Ne. 2:26 and Moroni 7:16, 19) Thus, the atonement is the basis of
human agency. Without conscience, we would have no practical hope of choosing the right and overcoming
temptation. We rely on borrowed light for our recognition of goodness. We could not progress through the
exercise of agency if our environment was full of temptation toward sin without anything tempting us toward
righteousness.
Morgan summarizes his view of atonement: The atonement was not a matter of satisfying justices
relentless thirst for suffering. Instead, it was a matter of pulling the universe far enough out of the darkness to
make repentance and growth possible. God does that by giving his light to give life to all things. This light is
the law by which all things are governed. Morgan this concludes that atonement brought life to all things by
infusing the light of Christ in all things. Surely that makes the resurrection more at home in the divine-infusion
theory that in any of the other theories.
It seems to me that all of this is correct except the claim that there are two laws, one punitive and
one deserts based. There is only one law of justice the Law of Restoration. According to this law we reap
what we sew and if we refuse to repent then we reap the punishment attendant that refusal. If we demand justice
and refuse to forgive, then we will receive justice rather than mercy. However, this disagreement is merely a
small correction. My biggest problem is that Morgan doesnt present a theory of atonement. Rather, he presents

Jacob Morgan. The Divine Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement, Dialogue: A Journal
of Mormon Thought 39, no. 1 (Spring 2006), 57-81.

a theory of prevenient grace. He fails to address all of the crucial questions that a theory of atonement ought
to address. Not once does he mention either Gethsemane, the cross or even reflect on why Jesus suffers or how
Jesus bears our sins in atonement. Morgan admits that the divine-infusion theory does not answer the question
of why suffering is necessary to infuse the light of Christ in and through all things, but such is the testimony
of modern revelation. Indeed, it is clear that Jesus does not need to suffer in order for his light to be in and
through all things it was in and through all things before he suffered. So why does he? Any theory of
atonement that fails to even address the question just isnt a theory of atonement. However, I reiterate that it
seems correct to me as far as it goes.
D. A Brief Summary of the Compassion Theory of Atonement. I suggest that the Mormon
scriptures contain the suggestion of a view of atonement that radically differs from the historical theories and
has the resources to avoid all of the problems of the other theories. The (barely) essential features of the
Compassion Theory of Atonement are as follows:10
1. Sin is Self-Absorbed Alienation. As we grow from childhood we all freely (but initially innocently)
make the choice to hide ourselves from God and each other by hardening our hearts. We betray ourselves by
violating the law of love and choose to harden our hearts against God and others. In so doing, we alienate
ourselves from authentic existence and engage in numerous behaviors that injure our relationships with others.
We engage in a self-deceived way of being where we convince ourselves that remaining alienated will bring us
the greatest happiness.
2. Atonement Persuades us to Give Up our Alienation. In the absence of atonement we would be
super-fallen in the sense that we would be angels to the devil, stuck in our sinful nature and unable to freely
choose to repent. However, God gives us our agency by: (a) giving us the light of Christ which actuates our
conscience and a knowledge of good and evil; and (b) offering to enter into relationship with us as a matter of
unconditional grace and unmerited love. Because of the atonement we are made free to choose between
relationship in eternal life with him or to suffer the pain of alienation and spiritual death. He offers to accept
us into covenant relationship through the sign of baptism. At the moment we freely accept this free gift, we are
justified or in right covenant relationship with God. In the moment of opening our hearts to accept Christ,
we are redeemed from our alienation and reconciled to God. Realizing that God loves us unconditionally and
regards us as justified or worthy to be in covenant relationship with him as a matter of grace can persuade us
to soften our hearts and open to relationship once again.
3. Repentance Heals and Maintains the Relationship. In order to be in relationship with a perfect
being, we must be willing to abide those conditions which are inherent in a close and abiding relationship of
fellowship the provisions of the law of love. The conditions of the law of love define the terms of the covenant
necessary to remain in relationship with God and the community of Gods kingdom. We must be willing to let
go of our past and all of the behaviors that, by their very nature, create alienation. That is, we must repent by
ceasing to engage in behaviors contrary to the law of love, making reparation for the harms we have caused
and asking forgiveness of those we have treated with less than love.
4. Union with Christ Results in New Life and Light. When we repent and open to accept Christ, we

10

A more complete expression of the theory can be found in chapters 6 and 7 of Blake T. Ostler,
Exploring Mormon Thought: The Love of God and the Problems of Theism (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg
Kofford Books, 2006).

10

accept his light into our lives to commingle with the light of our lives. We become a new person in Christ
living co-shared-life in which his light shines in our countenances. We become new creatures who are bornagain into this newness of life in Christ. He takes up abode in us and we take up abode in him. We take his
name upon us and his image is renewed in us. In this sense, we are at-one with Christ. Prior to entering into
union with Christ our lives are burdened by the darkness of sin. When we overcome our alienation by entering
into union of life in Christ, the darkness of our lives that we share with him is transformed by the light of his
love to a greater brightness that grows in the process of sanctification. That is, sanctification is the process of
growth in the light toward deification. Deification is the fulness of glorification in union with the divine persons
in the Godhead
5. A Condition of Entering into Union is Willingness to be Vulnerable to the Other in Relationship.
Love, by its very nature, entails vulnerability to the free choices of the other with whom one is in relationship.
The compassion theory maintains that our sins cause pain for those who would choose to be in relationship with
us as a natural necessity of the way that authentic relationships function. It is painful to be in relationship with
us who violate the law of love in many ways. In addition, divine union entails the coinherence or indwelling of
our lives in each other. According to Mormon scriptures, we share our light or lifes energy with each other
in union. The Compassion Theory posits that when the darkness of our sins is mingled with the perfect light
of Christ we are enlightened, but the darkness that is in us causes him to experience momentary but
excruciating pain. The darkness is a cause of momentary pain that is turned to joy through repentance and
healing relationship. Christ is not punished for our sins, nor does he bear our shameful guilt or moral
culpability; rather, what he experiences is the pain and subsequent joy of entering into relationship of shared
life and light with imperfect humans.
6. Christ is Uniquely Able to Accomplish Atonement. To enter into the union of life in a way that
expresses not merely empathy and omniscient knowing, but experiential sharing of our alienated condition,
Christ learned compassion by the things that he suffered. According to Mormon scripture, Christ learned how
to succor us and share our lives fully by the things that he suffered as a mortal. Christ is uniquely qualified by
his experience because he achieved a fulness of union and glory with the Father while in the Garden of
Gethsemane and knew first-hand the pain of omniscient empathy of all the sin that had occurred in the world.
Further, fully divine beings, as such, cannot experience first-hand the alienation that is the essence of our
human condition because they abide in a relationship of complete union with the divine persons. Only by
becoming mortal and experiencing alienation first-hand can such experiential knowledge be possible. Christ
suffered the essence of spiritual death while on the cross when he experienced complete abandonment by the
Father following his complete union with the Father. Only he, in all of history, knew the fullness of the loss of
that union and the depth of pain of complete abandonment. These experiences uniquely qualify Christ to succor
us in pain and to persuade us to overcome our alienation by choosing to repent and enter into relationship with
him. Only Christ had the fulness of experience to transform our darkness with his light in virtue of his
experiences in Gethsemane and on the cross. His forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross while in this
state of alienated abandonment is the completion of divine love necessary to render at-one-ment and overcome
our alienation.
Christ is also uniquely able to effect atonement because he has power in himself to lay down his life
and take it up again. Christ is able to resurrect and to grant the power of resurrection to us as well. The
resurrection overcomes our alienation by bringing us back into the presence of God to be judged according to
our works. We are judged according to the desires of our hearts by the Law of Restoration which returns to
us what we truly desire as shown by our works in life. (Alma 41) The Law of Restoration is also recognized
by the fact that the degree of light or glory that quickens or gives life to our bodies in the resurrection is

11

dependent on whether we abide a telestial, terrestrial or celestial law. (D&C 88:20-32)


7. Atonement is the Mode of Relationship God Seeks to Have with Us. To be at-one is to be in divine
union. Being at-one is the very mode of being that Christ seeks with us at all times. He seeks to have the
greatest possible unity of loving relationship. He seeks for us to relate to him in the very same unity of oneness
with which he relates to the Father and Holy Ghost. Through our union with Christ we shall thus also be at-one
with the divine persons in the Godhead in the same sense that they are one.
8. Christ Satisfied the Demands of Justice of the Law of Restoration. Christ suffered as the first
person ever to join together the fulness of capacity for experience as God with mortal experience intimately
acquainted with human suffering first-hand. The magnitude of suffering was so great that Christ shrank at the
prospect, but willingly experienced the pain to fulfill the will of the Father so that he is fully moved by
compassion: And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent
of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means
unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. (Alma 34:15) Having ascended into heaven, having the
bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice;
having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed
them, and satisfied the demands of justice. (Mosiah 15:9) The demands of justice are the demands of the
Law of Restoration that each person shall have returned what s/he has sent out, reaping what has been sown.
If we repent, then Christ willingly and lovingly accepts into his being what we would have suffered so that we
dont have to. If we dont repent, then we must suffer for our own sins. (See Alma 41) The purpose of the law
that decrees that we shall receive according to our works in judgment is to awaken us to the suffering we will
endure as a natural result of our actions if we dont repent.
Thus, the demands of justice are answered in Christs atonement because we each receive what we
freely choose nothing could be more just than that. If we choose to repent, then we receive mercy by letting
go of our past and forgiving all others. As we forgive and show mercy, so we are forgiven and receive mercy.
If we dont, then we suffer the full weight of justice for our sins by bearing the pain ourselves for the natural
consequences of unloving conduct.
Thus, the Compassion Theory rejects the retributive notion of justice that demands that someone must
suffer and pay a price in order for someone to be forgiven. The demand of suffering and payment is replaced by
the condition that one must repent and have a genuine change at the core of ones being ones very heart to
meet the demands of justice. Because the atonement meets the demands of justice by placing us on probation and
allowing us time to repent rather than executing justice immediately, we need not be punished to satisfy the
demands of justice. Instead, God has demonstrated his mercy by placing us on probation and giving us time to
repent before the final judgment. (See Alma 42)
The primary merit of the Compassion Theory, in my view, is that it answers the questions and explains
the basic scriptural claims that must be explained by a theory of atonement without being unintelligible, arbitrary,
illogical, or immoral. I believe that it has the added merit of doing so in a way that is not merely faithful to, but
explanatory of the various scriptural metaphors and claims about what the atonement achieves. It explains both
how and why Christ bears our sins. It explains how and why he suffers as a result of our sins of which we repent.
He bears our sins because he takes our lives into his life in union. He suffers for our sins compassionately
because he knows of our suffering and actually experiences the pain of our sins as his own because there is
darkness and pain in our lives that causes him to suffer.

12

In fact, the Compassion Theory explains how and why Christ suffers for our actual sins but does not
suffer needlessly or unjustly. He does not suffer to appease the wrath of a vengeful Father or to satisfy the unjust
demands of some Platonic ideal of justice. He doesnt suffer because someone must suffer in retribution to pay
a price. God can in fact forgive us without requiring that someone must first suffer. His suffering is directly
related to my sins because he actually bears the pain of my sins for which I repent but does not unjustly suffer
for those of which I dont repent and therefore suffer myself. By letting go of the pain of our sins that is in us
through repentance, we are released from further suffering the effects of our sins. Moreover, the atonement is
directly related to our justification and sanctification because it explains how the union of our lives creates a new
person by eradicating our sinful being with the light of Christ. It explains how Christ freely takes our lives into
his to make us over in his image. It puts in bold relief the compassionate and sacrificial love that Christ manifests
to justify and redeem us and to progress in the light of sanctification. Thus, the Compassion Theory has the
incredible virtue of being the first theory of atonement that actually answers the relevant questions and explains
the scriptural data.
Moreover, the Compassion Theory also has the benefit of illuminating and interacting with the best
Pauline scholarship. Our union in Christs life being at-one in him is symbolized by baptism through which
we enter into covenant, die with Christ and rise to resurrection of life with him. We symbolize taking his life into
ours, and indeed making him the energy of our lives and becoming embodied in our own bodies, by symbolically
eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the sacrament. The New Perspective on Paul explains that Pauls focus
was not imputation of Christs righteousness to us so that we are deemed righteous when in fact we are not, but
of being found in Christ through covenant faithfulness. Consider the correspondence with the Compassion
Theory from a summary of Pauls thought by New Testament scholar Morna Hooker:
The sin of Adam was reversed and the possibility of restoration opened up when Christ lived and
died in obedience and was raised from life to death. Those who are baptized into him are able
to share his death to sin (Rom. 6:4-11) and his status of righteousness before God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Since Adams sin brought corruption into the world, restoration involved the whole universe
(Rom. 8:19-22; Col. 1:15-20) . . . [Christ] shared our humanity, and all that means in terms of
weakness . . . in order that we might share in his sonship and righteousness. To do this, however,
Christians must share in his death and Resurrection, dying to the realm of flesh and rising to life
in the Spirit. Thus Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ in order that Christ may live in him
(Gal. 2:19-20). The process of death and resurrection is symbolized by baptism (Rom. 6:3-4).
By baptism into Christ, believers are united with him, so that they now live in him. These
phrases (in particular in Christ) express the close relationship between Christ and believers
that is so important for Paul. 11
The focus is on the incarnation and sharing our mortal condition with us in indwelling unity of life rather
than the punishment that God imposes on him to satisfy his wrath. Perhaps the best summary of the Compassion
Theory is Pauls statement in 2 Cor. 5:18: For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who did not know
sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him [Christ]. That is, he takes the effects of our sin
into him to heal it and thus the sin in us is transformed into life and light in Christ. We become the righteousness
of God in Christ by accepting the light of Christ into our hearts in atonement. Thus our alienation is healed and
we are reconciled to God.

11

Morna Hooker, Paul, in Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Piper (eds.) The Oxford
Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 522.

13

However, the Compassion Theory has been critiqued because it is immoral to suggest that Christ
willingly accepts the pain of our sinful lives and suffers when we are justified and redeemed (not every time we
repent as has been mistakenly argued) because it means that we foist pain upon Christ when we should be willing
to suffer the pain for our sins instead of allowing him to do so. It is to these critiques that I now turn.
C. Greens Critique of the Compassion Theory. The Compassion Theory has been criticized by
several persons. The measure of a theory is its ability to respond persuasively to trenchant criticism from able
critics. I believe that it has the resources to respond to the most serious criticisms.
1. The Problem of Causing Christ Pain for our Sins When we Repent. Deidre Green maintains that the
Compassion Theory is vastly unacceptable for both Mormons and feminists because it focuses on suffering in
an unacceptable way and suggests that those who repent sadistically impose pain on Christ. She stated:
If Christs suffering for an individuals sins does not occur until that individual repents, two
problems arise. The first is that atonement becomes a matter of conscious and volitional sadism
on the part of the repentant sinner; the second is that because of this, human individuals
themselves who have compassion and empathy for Christ would be highly unmotivated to
repent. If, as Ostler states, the purpose of the Atonement is to overcome our alienation by
creating compassion, a life shared in union where we are moved by our love for each other,
then this object is largely subverted by creating a model in which human persons either selfishly
and sadistically transfer their pain to Christ in an immediate sense, or choose to refrain from
participating in repentance and atonement for the sake of sparing Christ more suffering. This
is especially true for women who are socialized to place their feelings of others before their own
and to choose to suffer themselves in order not to impose suffering on others.12
It is a fact that given the commitments of the Compassion Theory that Christ will experience pain if and
when we enter into healing relationship with him and, through him, with the Father and Holy Ghost as well.
However, we do not foist any such pain on him as Green contends. He willingly chooses to enter into relationships
that entail momentary but excruciating pain in order to realize the joy of healing and indwelling union. Although
Green repeatedly decries any view that involves God in pain as a result of relationships, she admits that it does
seem that from one aspect of the LDS perspective, Christ suffers in order to experience solidarity with human
beings and that human individuals at times experience suffering for the purpose of empathizing with the suffering
of Christ. This points to the fact that suffering is a natural part of both human and divine realities and that simply
cannot be avoided. . . Experiencing suffering helps individuals appreciate what Christ did for them and allows
them to relate their own sufferings to his.13 Nevertheless, Green argues that the Compassion Theory is morally
repugnant because it entails that we foist pointless pain upon Christ in the act of repenting and no sensitive person
would ever choose to do that as a means of repentance.
What Green apparently finds appalling is that Christ cannot avoid suffering if we choose to repent.
However, Greens critique is mistaken on many different levels. Green repeatedly describes the pain that Christ
suffers according to the Compassion Theory as a form of sadism, or the experience of pain for the purpose of

12

Deidre Green, Got Compassion? A Critique of Blake Ostlers Theory of Atonement, Element
vol. 4 Issue 1 (Spring 2008), 15-16.
13

Ibid. 9.

14

experiencing pain as something sought in itself as the goal of the experience. Her argument that feminists should
be especially repulsed by such a view because they often willingly take on pain of others for no reason
underscores this point. Such a view vastly distorts the Compassion Theory and engages in the most uncharitable
view of suffering possible as a basis of critique.
To proceed, I will make a few basic distinctions. First, I will distinguish different ways in which the
divine persons may be aware of our pain and participate in it:
Empathetic Sharing of Experience: Empathy is sharing anothers experience by attempting to imagine
how the other must feel based upon ones own experience.
Omniscient Sharing of Experience: Omniscient beings participate directly in the experience of others
in the sense that they know from a third-person perspective what the other is experiencing.
Compassionate Sharing of Experience: Participating in anothers experience from a first-person
perspective by having the same experience and sharing the very experience that is experienced by
another.
I have argued that the divine persons united as one Godhead share in our experience in the sense of
empathetic and omniscient sharing of experience. However, they cannot have a first-hand experiential knowledge
of alienation, rejection, isolation and aloneness while united as one Godhead. This limitation on the divine
knowledge is inherent in their mode of being at-one with each other or being united in coinherence or indwelling
unity. The Compassion Theory claims that Christs experiential knowledge qualified him uniquely to atone in
two respects. First, his experience includes first hand experience of the fulness of alienation on the cross in light
of a knowledge of what union with the Father is in Gethsemane. Second, he shares with us the very pain of our
sins because whatever energy it is that causes that pain in us is transferred to him in union of our lifes light to
be transformed and quickened by his light.
Thus, the Compassion Theory posits that in Gethsemane and on the cross Christ experienced: (1)
empathetic suffering for all who have and will suffer under the weight of sin; (2) omniscient suffering in knowing
all the sins that had been committed to that point in time; and (3) compassionate sharing of experience for all who
had repented to that time. Further, Christ suffers a momentary pain when we are joined to him in the moment of
justification by faith through the grace of unconditional acceptance in love. However, this momentary pain is
transformed into greater light and enduring joy through the healing power of his lifes light. Both Christ and we
receive mutual joy through atonement by being joined in healed relationships of intimate union.
Greens critique rests on the false assumption that we cannot be justified in choosing to create pain for
another or that we could do so out of love. However, I want to distinguish between pointless suffering and
redemptive suffering to demonstrate how far off her critique is. This distinction is critical to discussing the
Compassion Theory and it is Greens failure to attend to this distinction that vitiates her critique.
Pointless Suffering: Causing another to suffer psychological and/or physical pain for the sake of
experiencing the pain or for no reason at all.
Redemptive Suffering: Giving occasion for another to freely choose to suffer psychological and/or
physical pain so that suffering further pain can be avoided or for some benefit that outweighs the disvalue of the pain.

15

It is of course commonplace that we may justifiably choose to cause another to suffer some physical pain
because of the benefits that may be derived from doing so. For instance, parents may choose justifiably to cause
pain to their children to become vaccinated through a shot. Could a person choose to allow another to voluntarily
experience pain to benefit ones self as well as the one for whom pain is caused? To answer this question, Ill tell
two stories.
In the year 1850, a husband had been discussing with his wife whether to have children. He knows that
pregnancy appears to be beyond uncomfortable and that child birth is extremely painful and perhaps deadly. He
has (limited) empathetic understanding of the pain she may experience if they choose to have children. But he
wants to be a father. He wants to beget new life and participate in raising children. His wife says that she also
wants to have children. Could he justifiably choose to engage in intimate union with his wife to create new life
even though he knows that it will cause great though momentary pain for his wife and could even result in her
death? Could he do so out of love? I submit that the answer to both questions is rather clearly, yes.
Now this scenario may seem patriarchal because it approaches the question from the males point of
view. However, consider the roles. He is cast as the sinner and she as the savior by analogy to the Compassion
Theory of Atonement. She also wants to have a baby. She knows that by entering into intimate union with her
husband to create new life she will be exposed to great pain and that she will walk through the valley of the
shadow of death. But out of her love for her husband and her unborn child she is willing to undergo that pain.
Is that remotely sadomasochistic? I trust that even a feminist could see the point of this analogy and perhaps
it is precisely the feminist who will appreciate it most.
Consider another story. A husband has committed adultery. He has hidden the truth from his wife
because he doesnt want to hurt her. He knows that she will feel pain if he reveals his secrets. He is truly
sorrowful for the injury he has caused to their relationship. However, he desires to have an honest, authentic and
truly trusting relationship with his wife. He loves her and wants to realize true intimacy and a deeper relationship
with her. He realizes that he cannot achieve his desire for more intimate and authentic relationship with her unless
he confesses. Indeed, he realizes that by withholding the truth he deprives his wife of the freedom of choosing to
be in relationship with him as he truly is. He has made the judgment that if she truly knew him she would reject
him and thus his secrecy is a form of failing to trust her. Perhaps she will reject him but he realizes that is
her choice to make. He realizes that he is being paternalistic by attempting to shield her from the pain that the
truth about his sins will cause.
Is the husband a sadist if he chooses to confess the truth about his affair to his wife and ask her
forgiveness? Hardly. It seems to me to be the most loving thing that he can do. Given the fact that he has sinned
against her, it demonstrates genuine trust to honor her freedom to choose by facing up to the truth about what
he has done. Perhaps a relationship that is a facade can be endured for a small amount of time, but who could
endure such a relationship for an eternity? I suggest that such constraints on authentic and loving relationship
are exactly the same for a faithful, trusting, and authentic relationship with God.
Both of these stories demonstrate redemptive love willingness to allow another to willingly experience
pain for the benefit of authentic relationships and new life. I submit that they show that Greens approach to
suffering suffers from failure to recognize the distinction between pointless pain and redemptive suffering. Is an
eternity of union in fulness of love with us through our repentance worth the pain that Christ suffers in
atonement? I suggest that the answer is, once again, clearly and resoundingly yes. Moreover, he has already
voluntarily made the choice to undergo such suffering in order to be reconciled to us. He has already fully
prepared himself through his incarnate experience to heal our stripes and salve our wounds with his loving light.

16

He has already said yes to us and accepted us as worthy of relationship with him as a matter of loving grace.
If we refuse to repent and accept his offer of relationship, then the pain of his mortal experience is meaningless
in our lives and we reject his own demand to repent.
Perhaps more importantly, the truth is that our sinful actions cause pain to those in relationship with us.
Indeed, sin consists in precisely the evil of pain committed when interpersonal relationships are injured and
alienation is created. Given the commitments of the Compassion Theory, the only way to avoid the pain inherent
in sin is to refrain from sinning in the first place. The only way to stop the pain once we have sinned is to trust
Christ and repent. Green thus misses the central motivating point of the Compassion Theory: To avoid creating
pain for Christ in atonement one must avoid sin.
It is ironic that Green critiques the Compassion Theory by arguing that it fails to recognize that an unjust
double punishment could motivate us to repent. Green argues: While double punishment significantly challenges
the concept of justice, it could prove efficacious in motivating persons to repent. Since Ostlers theory focuses
on compassion, it might allow for the possibility that when a person believes that Christ has already suffered for
sins, she may be motivated to repent by the desire not to allow that previous suffering to go in vain. Ostlers
solution presented in order to preserve justice, fails to recognize how the concept of double punishment could
serve as impetus for repentance for a compassionate person.14
Yet Greens suggestion here seems both backwards and morally reprehensible. She admits that double
punishment is in fact unjust; but this injustice can motivate us to repent because we can give meaning to the pain
that Christ has already suffered. How? He has already suffered and he suffers regardless of whether we repent.
What could be less motivating than the fatalistic realization that Christ has suffered and there is nothing we can
do about it because he has already fully suffered whether we sin or not? That seems to be maximally unmotivating to me. In contrast, the Compassion Theory entails that if we dont sin, then he doesnt feel the pain
of our sins that never occur. Thus, we are motivated to refrain from sinning in the first place and we realize that
there is no cheap grace that gets us off Scott free with no one suffering. It also entails that his suffering is given
meaning by our repentance because our repentance has achieved Christs purpose in suffering reconciliation,
avoidance of any future suffering for our sins of which we repent and transformation to new life in union with
Christ and his God in the greatest joy possible. If that isnt motivating to repent, what could possibly motivate
us to repent? Indeed, D&C 19:15-20 urges us to repent so that we can avoid the pain of our sins that we will
experience if we dont repent. I turn to that scripture now.
2. Critique of Scriptural Exegesis. Green also critiques the scriptural basis that I claim for the
Compassion Theory of Atonement. In particular, she criticizes the use of D&C 19 to support the theory. Doctrine
& Covenants 19:15-17 states:
15 Therefore I command you to repentrepent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and
by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sorehow sore you know not, how
exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they
would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain,

14

Ibid. 5.

17

and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spiritand would that I might not drink
the bitter cup, and shrink
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the
children of men.
20 Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and
that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which
in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.
Green states: The canon, to which Ostler wants to give primacy, states that Christ has already suffered
for our sins and that we will suffer for them in futurity if we do not repent of them while in mortality. Scripture
is clear that this is a suffering we have not yet experienced and that we cannot comprehend. Yet Ostler claims
that Christ feels our pain through our volitional transference. . . . Ostler is correct that the transfer is real, but
not that it happens in real-time in the act of repentance. Moreover, section 19 implies that God does not consider
double punishment unjust.15 Thus, Green reads D&C 19 to state:
(a) God suffered these things (in Gethsemane) for all who have been, are now or ever
will be mortal regardless of whether they repent.
I accept that Greens reading of D&C 19 is one possible reading and perhaps the standard view as far
as I know. However, I pointed out four problems with this standard reading: (1) Problem of Backward
Causation: It creates a problem of backwards causation because Christ suffers for sins that havent even been
committed yet. (2) Denial of Free Will. If Christ has suffered for our sins that we will commit, then we cannot
be free to not commit them. Nothing could be surer than the logical entailment that we do not have power to avoid
performing acts that have already had causal effects in the world before we commit them. (3) Double
Punishment. The standard reading creates a problem of double punishment because Christ suffers for our sins
that we dont repent of and thus we both suffer for the same sins.(4) Violates the Innocence Principle. The notion
that Christ suffers for our sins violates the principle that it is unjust to cause an innocent person to suffer for the
actions of another person who is guilty of those actions. To avoid these problems, I offer another reading of D&C
19 that I believe remains faithful to the text:
(b) God suffered these things (i.e., empathetic pain in Gethsemane, on the cross and also
the actual pain of our sinfulness) for all those who repent; and those who dont repent
must suffer these pains personally.
Given the fact that the original revelation didnt have any punctuation, 16 the statement in D&C 19:16-17
is actually: Behold I God have suffered these things for all that they might not suffer if they would repent but
if they would not repent they must suffer even as I. The referent of all is thus to all those who repent and
not to all that might exist at any time. I suggest that this reading has two overriding virtues: (1) it avoids the four
problems with the standard reading I have discussed; and (2) it makes more sense of the two conditional clauses

15

Ibid., 10.

16

The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Vol. 2, eds. Robin Scott Jensen,
Robert J. Woodford, Steven Harper (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church Historians Press, 2009), 25-26.
The particular pages of the manuscript that apparently contained D&C 19:15-19 are missing. However,
from the remainder of the revelation manuscript the lack of punctuation if clear.

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of the text.
Green agrees that the problems I have pointed to are real problems that deserve due consideration. To
accommodate these problems so that Christs suffering doesnt involve backward causation and attendant denial
of free will, Green suggests that there is a better reading:
There is a better way around the problem of Gods limited foreknowledge by relying on LDS
scripture . . .While for Ostler a negation of absolute foreknowledge precludes an infinite
atonement being wrought at a particular historical moment, in order to be true to LDS scripture,
he must allow the possibility that there is an upper limit to the amount of sin that individuals can
commit. If this is so, then there is some maximal level of collective sin of which God is aware
and for which Christ could have atoned at a particular moment in the past.17
Given the scriptures of the Restoration one can presume that God can anticipate an upperbound of sin and suffering humans will experience individually and collectively. This does not
require Gods absolute foreknowledge, but only that God knows where the bounds are set. Christ
suffers the maximal amount of human sin. Christs suffering is not unjust, since his suffering
is volitional.18
Greens view would require us to reject the standard reading and re-interpret D&C 19:16-17 as follows:
(c) God suffered the pain of these things in Gethsemane for all who have, do now or
may ever become mortal to the full extent they could possibly sin even if they dont
actually commit the sins and regardless of whether they repent.
Now this is a rather amazing suggestion given Greens concern about what she calls the sadistic
suffering she claims is entailed by the Compassion Theory. This view entails that Christ suffers for sins that
arent even committed. Indeed, Christ suffers to the maximum extent logically possible given the persons who
could exist! Greens theory indeed entails that Christ suffers the maximum amount of pointless suffering possible.
What could be more sadistic and calculating than this view suggested by Green?
On the other hand, the Compassion Theory of atonement entails that all of Christs suffering is
redemptive and none of it is pointless. It is all in furtherance of repentance and the gift of new life in union with
Christ. The entirety of Christs suffering is directed toward the purpose of healing relationships and transforming
our darkness into light. Christs suffering is thus maximally redemptive on the Compassion Theory of Atonement
and maximally pointless on Greens reading. That is ironic, to the say least, given her critique.
Further, Green suggests that Christ suffers the actual pain of guilt even though he is innocent and not
guilty of anything. Green also claims that this needless suffering is not unjust, since his suffering is volitional.
Even were Christ willing to suffer for sins that are never committed, it isnt just for him to suffer for our guilt.
Say that I have stolen an item from a store but the store owner thinks my son did it and he is punished in my
place. My son hides my involvement to keep from exposing my guilt. If my son is punished for something that

17

Ibid. 7.

18

Ibid. 17.

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I did and he willingly undergoes that punishment to hide my guilt, it seems to me that matters are made doubly
worse: the person who should be punished escapes punishment and the innocent person is unjustly punished. This
double problem plagues Greens suggested view of atonement. But it gets even worse. Christ suffers pain for sins
that were never in fact committed on this view. He is punished for nothing at all.
This latter problem of innocent suffering is made even greater because Green insists that is precisely the
pain of being guilty and morally culpable that Christ must suffer if he suffers pain for our sins. She states: What
is the pain for our sins other than guilt? In an LDS view Christ suffers for pains other than pains for our sins,
and transfer of these pains need not imply moral culpability. [Green cites Alma 7:11-13 here] The pain for our
sins, however, seems to be precisely pointing toward the issue of guilt and implies moral culpability.19 She also
rejects that guilt for sins is personal by its very nature. Yet her own view of atonement violates the innocence
principle in the most egregious way possible by having Christ pay the price for sins that are not even ever
committed. It also entails, if her argument here holds any water, that Christ feels the pain of such upper limit of
possible sins precisely because he is guilty and morally culpable for them even though he did nothing for which
he is guilty. This view seems to be maximally morally reprehensible to me.
Thus, while Greens suggested explanation for Christs suffering in fact solves the problem of backward
causation, it fails to resolve the problem of double punishment and violates the innocence principle three times
over. Moreover, what causes this actual pain in Christ for sins that are never committed? Sins that are never
committed couldnt cause such pain given the very plausible principle that what doesnt exist cannot cause
anything. Does the Father cause this pain? If so then the Father is not merely unjust but sadistic. It also follows
that to know the supposed upper-limit of sin requires God to have middle-knowledge -- which I have argued at
length is conceptually incoherent and inconsistent with free will.20 Just why Green feels that LDS scripture entails
that there must be an upper-limit to the pain that can be generated by sin, or whether there could possibly be a
maximum amount or number of sins, simply escapes me.
Green nevertheless claims that the Compassion Theory gets the temporal ordering of the atonement
wrong because she claims that D&C 19 shows that Christ already completely suffered and fully completed the
atonement while in Gethsemane. However, that isnt what it says. Look again at what D&C 19:19 states:
Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
Christ finished his preparations. The Compassion Theory maintains that the extremes of Christs mortal
suffering uniquely prepared him to atone to accomplish healing of our relationship in the here and now. He
completed everything necessary to be able to bear our sins: Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels
of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having
broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and
satisfied the demands of justice. (Mosiah 15:9) So there is an already completely accomplished aspect of
atonement in Christs experiences in Gethsemane, death on the cross and resurrection. He has completed his
preparations necessary to be able atone. However, there is also an aspect of atonement that is ongoing and not
yet fully accomplished union with us through our repentance here and now.
Green also argues that the Compassion Theory adopts a problematic notion of retributive justice that

19

Ibid. 4.

20

See, Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God (Salt Lake City, Utah:
Greg Kofford Books, 2001), 163-181.

20

ought to be critically assessed. She argues that my citation of Alma 34:11-12 (see also Alma 42:) entails such
a notion of retributive justice or the notion that persons must suffer punishment for their violations of law:
11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of
another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother?
I say unto you, Nay.
12 But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing
which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.
Green is correct that the Nephite law reflected in Alma 34:11-12 assumes a retributive theory of justice
where a person must suffer a penalty for a violation of law capital punishment for murder. However, I expressly
rejected the retributive theory of punishment.21 The only purpose for which I cite Alma 34 is to establish the
innocence principle: it is unjust to punish an innocent person for what a guilty person did. Moreover, I expressly
adopted a different view of justice: the Law of Restoration discussed by Alma in Alma 41 where we each receive
in return what we send out and ultimately what we truly desire. This is the notion of justice inherent in an agape
theory of ethics which bases moral judgments on the nature of what is required to establish loving relationships.
Indeed, I spend not less than three chapters arguing for this view of justice so Im a bit discomfitted that a reader
as intelligent as Green could have misunderstood what I wrote about the notion of justice. However, Im sure that
the failure to communicate effectively is mine and not hers.
3. Claims of Logical Inconsistencies. Green also claims that there are several logical inconsistencies in
the Compassion Theory. Green claims that the Compassion Theory appears inconsistent because it claims that
the pain for sins is extinguished in the death of Christs flesh on the cross. She claims that such a claim is
inconsistent with the claim that there is no backward causation or foreknowledge.22 But Green is confused. I dont
claim that all sins were extinguished in Christs death on the cross. Rather, only all of the sin that existed as of
that time were extinguished. I speak metaphorically of how even our sins are extinguished in the cross because
in virtue of Christs death on the cross the reign of sin is overcome in the resurrection. He completed his
preparations to atone and thus the sins for which we repent are atoned already in the sense that all we have to do
is repent and Christ is able to do the rest in virtue of his mortal experiences and resurrection. He has already
accepted us into relationship the question is whether we will reciprocate. Green admits: Ostler may be speaking
metaphorically here, however, she argues that the metaphor is misleading as it attempts to locate the necessity
of Christs suffering in the historical past. Of course all metaphors break down at some point, but I suggest that
the metaphor is more than appropriate. With Christs death and resurrection our ability to repent is assured. The
Compassion Theory clearly doesnt try to locate Christs suffering for our sins only in the past it is also in the
moment of justification in which we enter into a new relationship of shared life in Him.
She also claims that the theory is inconsistent because it claims that Christ suffers when we sin, i.e., fail
to live the law of love, yet Christ does not suffer until we repent, i.e.,succeed in living the law of love by working
toward reconciliation and obedience to Christ . . .23 I of course do not claim that God doesnt experience pain until
we repent. He suffers the pain of loss when we reject him. Greens assertion of inconsistency fails to pay attention

21

See my discussion in Ibid. 204-16.

22

Green, Compassion Theory, 7.

23

Green, Compassion Theory, 8.

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to the distinction between suffering at the time we choose to breach the relationship and alienate ourselves from
God and the compassionate pain that only a God can suffer by sharing our lives with us in indwelling unity. These
two kinds of suffering are not mutually exclusive which of course they must be for Greens argument to work.
There are also claims made by Green (following Ivone Gebara) that are rather outrageous in my view.
Green joins many feminist theorists in claiming that women suffer in particular as victims of the view that Christ
showed love by his sacrificial death. She claims that: What is problematic with lifting up the crucifixion as the
ultimate act of love is that it not only validates current suffering, but incites women to seek unnecessary
sacrifice.24 Neither Green nor Gebara provides a shred of evidence for this rather strident empirical claim.
Moreover, it appears to me to be unsupportable. How would they know that viewing the crucifixion as an
expression of Gods love for us somehow incites women to seek unnecessary suffering? It is this kind of
victimology that I believe is not only evidentially unjustified, but it devalues and denigrates Christs gift to us.
Let us agree that there is nothing good per se in suffering itself. The horror of Jesuss brutal and violent
death on a Roman cross is a reminder of the corruption of imperial governmental power and the depth of human
depravity in sin. However, the suffering of Jesus is also the ultimate expression of Gods loving choice to be with
us sinners in the depth of human despair and alienation. The fact that God himself, the Son of the Father in the
Godhead, emptied himself of his glory to descend below all things to experience the most remote depths of such
excruciating physical pain and abandonment by the Father in the moment of greatest need expresses a love so great
that it shocks us. In this suffering we see perfect obedience to Gods will to lay down his life for his friends.
Greens suggestion that we should not recognize love in Jesuss suffering because it validates suffering misses
the entire point of the fact that we have a Savior who suffered for and with us so that we dont have to. Her claims
trivialize the undoubted failure to adequately value womens voices in the past. Christs suffering ends the need
to suffer. The message, for not only women, but all of us, is that we already have a Savior and we dont need
another. Indeed, the most emphatic point of Christs atonement is that both sin and continuing to suffer for our
own sins is pointless and just plain stupid. We dont have to suffer for our sins if only we will repent by turning
back toward God who stands with open arms waiting for us to walk into his embrace.

24

Green, 13, citing Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Womens Experience of Evil and Salvation,
trans. Ann Patrick Ware (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 88. As Kathryn Tanner, another
feminist theologian, observed, feminist theologians risk missing the entire point of Christs atonement by
merely judging the suffering involved as something negative and therefore to be denigrated: Of course, a
feminist and womanist focus on Christs ministry can itself become one-sided, and therefore susceptible of
critique on the grounds . . . that the cross can fall out of consideration altogether except as something
simply negative. The usual recourse of feminist and womanist theologians is to dismiss that the idea that
there is anything saving going on in the crucifixion. See, Incarnation, Cross and Sacrifice: A FeministInspired Reappraisal, Anglican Theological Review vol. 86, no. 1 (Winter 2004), 39.

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